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Families increasingly super-sizing

The number of women giving birth to more than three children is rising amid a growing openness to big broods.

October 22, 2006|David Crary | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Laura Bennett isn't bound by convention. Professionally, at age 42, she's pursuing a mid-career switch into big-time fashion design. At home, she's a mother of five -- with No. 6 due next month.

"It was nothing that we planned ahead of time," Bennett said. "It's more that we were enjoying all the kids. We have a happy home. Why not have as many children as we can?"

It's barely a blip on the nation's demographic radar -- 11% of U.S. births in 2004 were to women who already had three children, up from 10% in 1995. But there seems to be a growing openness to having more than two children, in some cases more than four.

The reasons are diverse -- from religious to, as Bennett says, "Why not?"

The families cut across economic lines, though a sizable part of the increase is attributed to a baby boom in affluent suburbs, with more upper-middle-class couples deciding that a three- or four-child household can be affordable and fun.

The Bennetts still stand out. Among other well-off families in Manhattan, three children is generally the maximum -- one or two is much more common as parents contemplate private-school tuition of $25,000 a year even for kindergarten, and a real estate market that is far from family-friendly.

Bennett's husband, Peter Shelton, is a successful architect, and the family can afford child-care help while Bennett -- also an architect by training -- pursues her fashion-design aspirations after being a finalist on the TV reality show "Project Runway." But their motives sound similar to those of other, less wealthy parents nationwide who have opted for five or more children.

Dr. Jeff Brown, a pediatrician affiliated with Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut's wealthy southwestern suburbs, has noticed a clear trend.

"I don't hear people say, 'We'll have two and then we're done,' where I used to hear that before," he said. "People are much more open to three-children families than they were 10 years ago."

However, really big families remain rare, Brown said, in part because many women are giving birth at older ages -- they may not have their third child until their 40s, when the prospect of a fourth might seem too daunting.

The U.S. Census Bureau says it has no national data specifying which demographic sectors are having more children. But an expert on family size, Duke University sociologist Philip Morgan, says it makes sense that some well-off couples are opting for more children as concern about global crowding eases because of declining birth rates overall.

"The population explosion -- fears about that are over," he said. "People used to think that having more than two kids was not only expensive but immoral. Now, people say if you can afford three kids, four kids, that's great."

Yet Morgan, who has three children, doubts there will be a boom in extra-large families.

"No matter how much money the parents have, most think each of their kids should have their own place and time," he said. "More than four -- that's when people start thinking you're crazy, that you're shortchanging the ones you already have."

Bonny Clark, a mother of five from suburban Minneapolis, has encountered such skepticism. When pregnant with twins four year ago -- with three other children already -- even some of her friends were dismayed.

"There were a lot of unwelcome comments, like, 'If I had three kids and was having twins, I'd kill myself,' " Clark said.

Clark, 38, is aware of the buzz that large families -- in the suburbs, at least -- are considered a new status symbol.

"I thought it was kind of funny," she said. "Most people who have a lot of kids don't have the time or energy to care what about others think."

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Her husband, who runs a college mail center and does landscaping, has limited spare time, and the family constantly improvises to make do financially.

Carmen and Frank Staicer of Virginia Beach, Va., have an even bigger brood -- six children ages 2 through 14. The two youngest -- including 2-year-old Riley, who is autistic -- are at home with Carmen during the day; the others go to Roman Catholic schools.

Carmen embraces the challenges of raising so large a family but doesn't minimize them.

"There are many nights I go to bed mentally exhausted, after trying to deal with high school bullies and first-grade spelling words," she said. "But I can't think of anything that I'd rather do than be dealing with these incredibly funny, wonderful individuals."

Carmen, whose husband is a car dealership finance manager, says budget-balancing can require buying secondhand sports gear and controlling food bills with coupons and leftovers.

Her oldest children -- Nikolas, 14, and Allegra, 11 -- are sometimes weary of the decibel level around the house, but they also see upsides. Allegra says that if she's briefly feuding with one of her siblings, there's always someone else to play with.

One gauge of the Staicers' busy home life is laundry -- 20 loads in an average week.

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